Whenever a movie like Gravity comes along — breaking major box office records and breaking major new ground in the art of filmmaking — Hollywood studios often work furiously to replicate its success while missing the real reasons behind that success. And indeed, Gravity — a 3D lost-in-space thriller so cutting edge, director Alfonso Cuarón had to invent a way to make it — did just gross an estimated $55.6 million, an all-time high for the month of October, as well as for stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
When you adjust for inflation, the only one of those records that still stands is Bullock’s — Batman & Robin and The Perfect Storm were bigger for Clooney, and Scary Movie 3, Shark Tale, and Paranormal Activity 3 were bigger in October. But that actually underlines just how unusual Gravity is in modern Hollywood. When you look at the top 15 grossing films in October, eight are sequels, two are prequels, one is a horror remake, and one is an adaptation of a wildly popular children’s book. Other than Gravity, only two are wholly original productions, and of them, one is the disposable rom-com Couples Retreat, and the other is, yep, DreamWorks Animation’s Shark Tale, i.e., the one where Angelina Jolie played a sexy fish.
The point being, Hollywood does not like to make original movies. They don’t tend to hand the keys to the bank vault to filmmakers with only one other major hit on their résumé like Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and say, “Go ahead, invent how you’re going to make this movie, take four and a half years to do it, and it’s totally fine that you don’t put any sound or aliens in your movie set in space.” It’s that last word, in fact, that will likely be the one that studio executives cling to when discussing this movie in the coming weeks: “What space movie scripts do we have lying around?”
But the reason Gravity was a creative and commercial success ultimately has little to do with the fact that it’s set in space. In an interview with Wired, Cuarón said that space and space exploration largely served as “a metaphor for the main character,” a woman emotionally crippled by grief. Once Cuarón, who wrote the film with his son Jonas Cuarón, decided to set this woman’s story in space, he worked tirelessly to make his film unlike any other space movie anyone had ever seen.
It may be an old lesson, but it always bears repeating: If Hollywood studios want to have more successes like Gravity, they need to let more filmmakers take unique, time consuming, and possibly expensive creative risks, rather than attempting to recreate the results of another filmmaker’s creative risks. Just look at Sandra Bullock’s recent career renaissance: Gravity, The Heat, The Blind Side, The Proposal — a space-set thriller, an R-rated buddy cop comedy, a wholesome and heartwarming family drama, and a high-concept romantic comedy. None of them are anything like the other, and there isn’t a sequel, prequel, or remake among them.
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Gravity* — $55.5 million
2. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 — $21.5 million
3. Runner Runner* — $7.6 million
4. Prisoners — $5.7 million
5. Rush — $4.4 million
6. Don Jon — $4.2 million
7. Baggage Claim — $4.1 million
8. Insidious Chapter 2 — $3.9 million
9. Pulling Strings* — $2.5 million
10. Enough Said — $2.2 million